Christmas with Autistic Children: Ho-Ho-Hold the Expectations
The Christmas holidays are a time of great excitement and anticipation. Holidays also mean changes in the schedule, visitors, crowds, line-ups, noise, and socializing. For autistic children, the Christmas holidays can be a stressful and anxious time. Meeting family demands can be especially nerve-wracking, particularly if you want to break with time-honoured traditions that just don’t work for an autistic child. This can be a difficult time of year, but with some preparation and planning, the holiday season can be enjoyable.
15 Tips for Making the Best of the Holidays
1)Family Expectations – Be clear with other family members what will and won’t work and make a compromise. For example, my mother used to want us to spend most of the day on December 24th at her house, then go to an evening mass. To get a seat, you had to be there one hour before the mass starts. This was too much for my two autistic children so we opted to just spend the afternoon at Grandma’s, then go home for a quiet, family dinner on our own. We still saw the family, just not for the same amount of time everyone else did.
2)Pick the Right Time for Activities – With everyone on Christmas break, most attractions will be busier. Call ahead and ask when the less busy times are. Matinees are better than evening shows. If eating out, get there by 5 pm or after 7 pm. A Sunday may be quieter than a Saturday; mornings are usually better at most places.
3)Maintain Routines – Try to stick with routines like bedtime, bathtime and meals. If that’s impossible, try to keep one routine in place so that the child has something they can count on being the same. Kids like predictability. If there is a change in routine, let your child know ahead of time on the schedule.
4)Special/Restricted Diets – If your child follows a special diet, let everyone know and ask them not to offer food without your permission. Well-meaning people think a child is missing out if they don’t try all the Christmas treats. Parents know the consequences of dietary changes. Having a child that is sick or won’t sleep due to what they ate is no fun.
5)Visiting – When out visiting, limit the length of the visit and make sure your child brings a few things that he finds comforting. Ask your hostess where there is a quiet space available if your child needs it.
6)Visitors – Let potential visitors know that unannounced visits are stressful. Ask that they call ahead and come at times that work for your family. Limit how long they stay ahead of time. (i.e. – We’d love to see you for an hour, but then Joey has to go for a nap or we’ll be going out.)
7)Schedule in Some Respite Time – Finding people to babysit over the holidays can be trying, but with many university students home for the holidays, you may be able to enlist some help. Take in a movie, go for a walk – whatever lifts your spirits.
8)Seeing Santa – Sensory or Sensitive Santa is a program that is now offered by most malls. This is an opportunity for autistic children to visit Santa in a sensory friendly environment. This means Sensory Santa’s are often held before the malls open on a Sunday morning, when it’s quieter. The time set aside for Sensory Santa is exclusive for autistic children. Contact your local autism society to find a Sensory Santa time near you.
9)Christmas Fun – Go for a drive and see the Christmas lights at night. Decorate the tree over the course of a week – hang a few decorations a day so that it isn’t a huge job in one go. Buy an Advent Calendar and count down the days until Christmas. Playmobil offers great ones with different themes.
10)Christmas Presents – Some autistic children find presents overwhelming. Tearing off wrapping paper can be a challenge for those with fine motor issues. Some children might feel anxious not knowing what’s inside. For those with fine motor issues, consider putting things in gift bags with loose tissue on top. Put a picture of what’s inside the box on the outside. Not everything has to opened in one day – stretch the gift opening over the course of a week.
11) Gift Ideas – Not sure what to get an autistic person for Christmas? Maybe a pass to a favorite attraction, movie passes, books, or a calendar.
12) Sensory challenging moments – Sometimes it may be impossible to have a sensory friendly environment at a family gathering or outing. Consider bringing noise cancelling headphones, fidget toys for waiting times or to use for calming, and allocate quiet spaces ahead of time if you are able to.
13) Exercise and Outdoor Breaks – Exercise and movement can help an autistic person self-regulate and manage stress and anxiety. Going for a walk to the corner store for an item, riding an exercise bike or doing a few yoga poses can help with anxiety management and support a better night’s sleep. Spending some time outdoors is also helpful.
15) Start your own traditions – Since the big Christmas dinner doesn’t work for us with special diets to prepare every night, we started the Christmas lunch tradition which is a much simpler affair. Do what is meaningful and works for your family.
Remember: Forget about everyone’s holiday expectations and create your own traditions that work for your family.
Every family has its own rhythm and pace. Do what works for your child – think about maintaining predictability through routines and familiar toys, places, and people. Merry Christmas to everyone and all the best in the New Year!
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